One of the pleasures of spending time in my garden isn’t just the delicious stuff I grow for myself and my family, but the wonderful wildlife that come to visit. One of my favorite birds to see in my yard is the humble cardinal. Male cardinals have a black face with a stunning, fiery red body, while female cardinals tend to be a bit more drab in color. Either way, the birds are stunning and I love to see them grace my yard. In this article, we’ll be talking about how to attract cardinals and keep them around all year long. Let’s dive in!
All about cardinals
In order to attract cardinals to our yards, it helps to know a little bit about this stunning, crested bird. These are the basic fast facts about cardinals:
- Latin name: Cardinalis cardinalis
- Other names: cardinal-grosbeaks and cardinal-buntings
- Appearance: Males are bright red with black faces. Females are brown. Both sexes have crested head feathers.
- Native range: Northeast Mexico to the upper Midwest and New England
- Temperament: Can be territorial and aggressive
- Nest location: Tall trees or shrubs, no interest in nest boxes
- Breeding period: March to September
- Number of eggs: 2-5
- Incubation period: 11-13 days
- Nesting period: 7-13 days
- Migration: Do not migrate
Cardinals are a common bird with crested head feathers and red or brown colored feathers that can be found living anywhere from the Yucatan Peninsula to New England. Males are bright red with black “masks” on their faces. Females are more of a drab, brown color. For the most part, cardinals will not ever be aggressive toward you, though they can become territorial and attack if you get too close to a nest.
Their ideal nesting location is in shrubs or tall trees. Cardinals will refuse nest boxes, no matter how nice the nest box may be. They will mate and lay eggs from March to September. Each clutch of eggs contains 2-5 small speckled white and brown eggs. These eggs will incubate for 11 to 13 days. By two weeks after hatching, the young cardinals will have left the nest. Cardinals don’t migrate and will remain in their native range year round.
How to attract cardinals to your yard
Now that we know a little bit more about these stunning, beautiful birds, let’s talk about how to attract cardinals. Cardinals have a handful of very basic needs, and if those needs are met, they should grace your yard year round.
Leave your garden over winter
When winter comes and your garden dies, what’s the point of keeping it? Why not get rid of it? Leave your garden alone over the winter! There may not be much for you to eat in there, but cardinals and other wildlife will find morsels of seeds and other food items in your garden if you leave it over winter. Winter feeding is of utmost importance to cardinals and other wild birds, so leaving a winter food source is a great way to attract them and get them to stay.
Don’t kill caterpillars or worms
Cardinals, like many birds, love chowing down on caterpillars, worms, and other bugs. If you find caterpillars, like tomato horn worms or cutworms, in your garden, don’t kill them! Instead, relocate them far away from your garden in another part of your yard. Keeping these bugs and worms alive will be an enticing offer to cardinals that may be passing by your yard. If food is frequently available, they will stay close to your property.
Provide a bird feeder with cardinal feed
Cardinals aren’t all that picky and will usually eat a wide range of bird seeds. That said, it helps to select a commercially available bird food that caters specifically to the needs of cardinals. Look for bird seeds that contain lots of sunflowers, cracked corn, peanuts, and mealworms. In the winter, provide special suet bird feeders to give cardinals (and other local birds) a nice boost of energy during the colder weather.
Grow cardinal-friendly foods
Another option for feeding your local cardinals is simply growing cardinal friendly foods. Cardinals love eating berries, seeds, and nuts. Every year, I grow a few varieties of sunflowers, harvest a few of the flowers for their seeds, and leave the rest out there for the cardinals to enjoy. You can also plant a few extra berry plants, as cardinals have a little bit of a sweet tooth. Providing as much food for the birds as you can is a great way to attract cardinals.
Add a bird bath
Providing a good source of clean, preferably running water is an excellent way to attract cardinals, and other birds, to your property. Cardinals will drink the fresh water and keep themselves clean and healthy by bathing in it. Cardinals are likely to be attracted to and stay in the general vicinity of places with fresh water for them to drink and bathe in.
Give them a place to perch
We’ve talked a lot about food and water, now let’s dig into habitat. If you want cardinals to pay your yard a visit and stick around, they need someplace to be. Cardinals are fond of perching in high places, like trees, and in dense shrubs. If you lack these safe perching spaces, you can provide artificial perches. Placing ground-based hanging basket hooks that have a flat top are a great addition to a more bare yard. You get to enjoy the flowers and the cardinals get to enjoy the perch! Placing perches near bird baths or bird feeders is appreciated by your cardinal friends as well.
Plant nesting trees and shrubs
Alongside placing special cardinal perches, planting trees and shrubs that are used for cardinal nesting sites is important for increasing the population of cardinals around your property. Cardinals love tall trees and thick shrubs. Trees that produce food for cardinals are popular as well. Plant mulberries, crabapple, and spruce trees if you want to attract cardinals. Planting shrubs like staghorn sumac, gray dogwood, and viburnum will also provide good nesting habitat for cardinals.
Leave dense spots in your garden
Cardinals don’t like being out in the open. They are safest when they can tuck themselves into dense foliage. For that reason, your neighborhood cardinals probably won’t like a perfectly manicured lawn and garden. Leave some spaces a little bit overgrown. Leave a thick layer of grass around an overgrown shrub or two. Most of all, provide layers in your garden that cardinals can hide in.
Provide nesting materials
If a cardinal has something to eat, drink and somewhere to nest, they’ll probably pick your yard as a part of their territory. The final key component for attracting cardinals is providing nesting materials. Cardinals will use twigs, pine needles, grass clippings, and other similar materials to build their nests. Consider leaving some of your grass clippings out and snapping a few twigs after you mow. This will give them some prime nesting material!
That’s just about all there is to know about attracting cardinals! We hope you have hours of bird watching fun.
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